Sarah Rundle (here she is, to the left) is bringing The Poorest Shee to Story Jam on Thursday 8th October. It’s part of a larger body of work that Sarah’s been honing for a long time. We thought we’d have a chat about it. Sarah joins Lucy Lill, Joe Fraser and Alys Torrance for a night of life-changing, death-defying stubbornness. The stories are just the start of the conversations…
Alys Torrance: Hi Sarah. Thanks for chatting.
Sarah Rundle: Hello Alys. I’m really looking forward to coming to Story Jam – it’s become a home-from-home for me….
AT: You’re a very popular teller with our audience. And with us. Story Jam is sticking its neck out a bit this autumn with our Stir It Up nights. Essentially we’ve asked you to lay your cards on the table, and talk politics. What was it like being asked to do that?
SR: Scary but exciting.
AT: How so?
SR: It’s easy to hide behind folk tales – the hero, the villain, the King, the rescued princess… and as a storyteller, to follow a well-worn path. And because it’s a fairy-tale, a formula, nobody’s necessarily having to open themselves up and reveal their innermost beliefs… But with this gig I’m having to stand up, present a load of history (and every fact is checked…) and woven amongst it is my inner core.
AT: I know you’ve been working on this material for – what – a year and a half now? So it’s something that you’ve been thinking a lot about. The Poorest Shee is part – maybe you could say it’s the spare rib of – The Poorest Hee. What made you tackle the English Civil War?
SR: I’ve always been fascinated by that period – so much changed, so many foundations of our modern state and politics were laid then – the Civil War has a lot more going on – there’s tons of economics and ecology and religion and the knock-on effects of the Thirty Years War in Europe…. The thing that started me on “The Poorest Hee” was an exhibition at the British Library – some years ago – on the fight for our liberties. They had a little warn book there, with the transcript of the Putney Debates – the ten/eleven days in 1647 when the men of the New Model Army told Cromwell that they wanted the Vote (at that time you could only vote if you possessed considerable landed property) – they’d been fighting, risked their lives – and they didn’t just want the outcome to be a new set of masters, but new freedoms and responsibilities for working men. I saw this small, battered book, that had the translation of the notes (the originals were in a form of shorthand), and they were open at the page where Rainsborough says: “I do think that the Poorest Hee that is in England hath a life to live as the Greatest Hee, and truly sir, I think its cleare, that no man should consider himself bound to a government unless he has had a say in electing that government”. And it stirred something in me, and I grabbed that phrase “the Poorest Hee” as my title…
AT: But this isn’t going to be a history lesson just so we can get our historical facts straight, right?
SR: No. It’s the story of the people at the gritty end of things – the ones publishing illegal pamphlets, getting thrown in the Tower, first by one side, then by the other… but there has to be some of the historical facts, ‘cos otherwise I get people coming up and saying “so where does Bonnie Prince Charlie come in?” (He doesn’t. Bonnie Prince Charlie is a whole century later…)
AT: Ah, so, to go back to what you said about revealing your inner core, there’s something about the Civil War that you feel strongly about? Something that’s making you hopping mad? Or mildly emphatic?
SR: The thing that worries me is that I can see the parallels with what’s going on at the moment. The parallels I can see today are in the Middle East. Unpopular out-of-touch ruler – Assad. Ecological problems – in the C17th it was global cooling and the Little Ice Age. Now its global warming and a drought in Syria from 2006-2010. Ruler (then and now) didn’t do anything to help the people…. result: conflict. But then…. instead of just being two sides (Unpopular Ruler vs The Resistance) – the Resistance splits into hardliners (now IS, then the Presbyterians) and the not so hardliners (the bits of the resistance that the USA supports, the New Model Army). And it gets very bloody.
AT: Those are big ideas. But you’re pulling out a particular thread of The Poorest Hee for Story Jam – The Poorest Shee.
SR: Yes. The Leveller Movement was full of women. Elizabeth Lilburn was the wife of John Lilburn and she spent most of her married life petitioning to get him out of jail. Mary Overton, wife of another Leveller leader, printed the pamphlets that he and John Lilburn wrote and smuggled out of prison – printing was the Internet of its day – new technology that spread information – and when Mary Overton was, in turn, arrested, her Petition for release was full of legal quotes – much more so than her husband’s. Ah, she’d have made a brilliant QC
AT: Why are you going to be telling the story of these Leveller women, in particular?
SR: Because they’re so interesting!!! They are not what we are let to expect of C17th women – they are fierce and they don’t stick to embroidery – they see the need for this abstract thing called Freedom just as much as the men do.
AT: Actually I don’t mind doing a bit of embroidery once in a while. I’m being flippant, but… my two last questions…
AT: Firstly, the battle for equality between the sexes seems endless, and it can seem like there’s nothing new to say – we just have to keep trying to roll things forward. I know you are always a brilliantly entertaining, earthy and spontaneous storyteller. Are Story Jam’s audience members going to be weeping into their beer, or is there hope?
SR: Yes, there is hope. But we have to think in terms of centuries, not decades.
AT: So we should hunker down and take the long view?
SR: Take the long view. But do more than hunker down – otherwise we’re talking millenia.
AT: Bloody hell! I’m not going to hunker down then. Here’s the last question…
You’re a storyteller – so you are an entertainer. This is going to be entertaining, right? I mean, I know it is, but tell me anyway. Because this is a long way from some of the material you do – badgers with huge testicles, ropes to the sky, joyous Italian medieval adultery.
SR: Hope so. There will be passion. There will be humour. There will be real-life heroines. And I hope that the fun side of my work – the badgers with enormous swinging testicles, the Italian bedroom farces… will stop me from turning puritan on you.
You can see the very unpuritan Sarah Rundle at Story Jam on Thursday 8th October (7.30pm). Tickets are £8/£6 on the door from 7pm.